When you think of a “good television family,” who do you think of? Ozzy and Harriet? The Cleavers? The Banks family on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Tim and Jill Taylor and their boys on Home Improvement? Carrie and Doug Heffernan on The King of Queens? Raymond and Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond? Who do you think of when asked about a storybook romantic couple from a Hollywood movie? Do you think of Belle and the Beast on Beauty and the Beast? How about Romeo and Juliet? Maybe you think of Edward and Bella from Twilight. Or Jack and Rose from Titanic? Each of these families and couples are probably some of the first images that pop into someone’s mind when they think of the questions I asked. That’s why many people are surprised to hear that each of these families and couples represents an example of a dysfunctional family system.

               Wait a minute! How dare I suggest that some of the most well-known families in television and movies are dysfunctional? Am I here to ruin everyone’s childhood? Why would I rain on your parade and tell you that your favorite characters are flawed? Well, if we think about it, of course these characters are flawed. After all, they are amusing to us because they represent human behavior. This is behavior that perhaps we participate in ourselves. We relate to their behavior because we are humans. And humans are flawed. As these shows and movies reiterate, every family is dysfunctional and every person is flawed.

               What does dysfunction mean? When we talk about family systems, it usually is defined by conflict, misbehavior, or abuse. While people tend to think of the abuse part when we hear the word “dysfunction,” if we think about the conflict and misbehavior components, we realize we are all part of dysfunctional families. Let’s look at our friends Tim and Jill Taylor from Home Improvement. Tim is always goofing off, much to chagrin of his wife. She doesn’t appreciate his behavior. Yet he continues to do it. In some ways, Jill wishes Tim would change. And Tim seems to think there are some things about Jill that he would like to change. On a number of episodes, Tim finds himself “in the doghouse.” He always seeks wise advice from his faceless friend and neighbor, Wilson. Then he returns inside to a happy home life. In every episode, there is some kind of misbehavior and some kind of conflict. By the way, here’s a spoiler alert from an English major: every story has some kind of conflict or tension. That’s what keeps us tuned in! Tim and Jill, along with their three boys, Randy, Brad, and Mark, are essentially the picture of a typically dysfunctional American family.

               Well, I wouldn’t possibly poke holes in a beloved story like Beauty and the Beast would I? Yes, I would. The Beast keeps Belle locked away in the tower. He holds her hostage. Eventually, she falls for her captor. This is an example of what psychologists call Stockholm Syndrome, a phenomenon that occurs when a hostage develops emotional attachment to their captor. It gets its name from a situation in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973, when a bank robber took four female hostages during a heist. Because they developed emotional attachment to their captor, all four refused to testify against him in court. In fact, they raised funds to help pay for his defense. Belle and the Beast developed an unhealthy, conditional relationship. “If you do what I want, I will be very sweet to you. If not, I will growl and snarl!” That’s simply not healthy. In fact, it is darn right abusive.

               Something similar can be said about William Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet. What? The classic love story of all time? What could be unhealthy about the most well-known love tale ever? A whole lot, actually! Romeo and Juliet takes place over the course of only five days. Romeo was only 16, but Juliet was an even younger 13! They belonged to quarreling families. They ran off together and got married far too quickly at far too young an age to make such a hasty decision (even when not factoring in an age difference that equates to around 20 percent). Then, when they misunderstood the other’s actions, they both died by suicide. Why is this the preeminent love ballad of all time? It’s horrifying, really.

               Dysfunction is part of the human experience. I grew up in a dysfunctional family and so did you. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about acknowledging that. This is especially true when we consider that our parents all likely did the best they could. When it becomes harmful is when there is a failure to acknowledge that harm may have occurred. Each of us experiences pain in our life. The pain can be understood better when it is acknowledged, especially when an apology is offered when one is due. Here’s an example of what I mean. I had gone on a trip with my nieces and their dad. It was just the four of us for a whole week. We were on the Big Island of Hawaii. We drove around the island for a week. If you’ve been there, then you know that the “Big Island” really lives up to its nickname. It takes a whole day to travel around the perimeter of the island. Nothing is terribly close together. It takes over an hour to travel from Kona on the western side to Hilo on the eastern side. A trip from Kona to Volcanoes National Park takes about two hours each way. We crisscrossed the island numerous times during the week. We were out late and up early. On the last day of the trip, we were all tired and cranky. We had to check out of our hotel early in the morning, only to wait around until close to midnight for our return flight home. We were essentially forcing ourselves to find something to keep us entertained on the last day. We waited in line for a shave ice. At a certain point, one of my nieces said something that got on my nerves. I snapped and told her to shut up. Immediately I regretted it. I got down on a knee and offered her a hug. I told her I was sorry and should not behave that way with her. She did not have to accept my apology, but I owed it to her anyway. And because she accepted my apology, that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt her. I am hopeful that owning my wrongdoing helps to alleviate some of the pain I caused for her. That is an example of dysfunction. We’ve probably all done something like that. I am hopeful that when it has happened, we have made amends and committed to work to avoid repeating the behavior in the future.

                Families and interpersonal relationships are dysfunctional because each of us brings our own history into the room. When we do so, we also bring assumptions. Sometimes our assumptions are true, and sometimes they are not. An example of a true assumption is that when you get out of bed in the morning, you assume the floor will support you and you will be able to stand up. Guess what? You were correct! But when you’re engaged in a conversation with someone, you assume they will behave in an expected way. This may be incorrect. “Why would he say something like that?” “Why would he wear that to church?” “Why would she give that kind of food to her kids?” Those are all questions based on our assumptions of what the other person should do. Maybe those behaviors are contrary to behaviors that were taught to us as normal while growing up. In the other person’s mind, they likely do not share those same assumptions, so their decisions are equally normal and valid. We simply assume they are not.

               Author Britt Fink teaches us, that believe it or not, the Addams Family is actually an example of a television family void of dysfunction. Gomez and Morticia love each other and enjoy each other’s company, yet they are ok being alone and doing their own thing. They love their kids, but let them express themselves freely. Wednesday and Pugsley are content to spend time with each other, and they are content to spend time alone. The Addams Family nurtures relationships and individuality. It’s a surprisingly functional family system.

               To be functional, we have to be aware of who we are and the role we play in our relationships. We have to know that we can control our own actions, but not the actions of others. We can have requests, and even establish healthy boundaries. But we cannot force other people to follow our requests or to respect our boundaries. Relationships can be challenging, especially when we allow our assumptions to run the show.

So how do we navigate relationships? We can be clear about our feelings and emotions. We can set and enforce healthy boundaries. We can tell people what we need from them and what we can offer to them. If they need something different from us than what we can give them, we can allow them to seek it elsewhere. If we need something different than someone can give us, then we can give ourselves permission to seek it elsewhere. The important thing to remember is that we must be true to ourselves. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s perfectly ok to walk away. After all, no is a one-word answer.

               Each of us brings dysfunction into the room any time we engage in a relationship with someone else. There really is no way to avoid it. People have different backgrounds and different experiences that inform us about what is “normal,” and those are quite frequently very different expectations from person to person. In order to be as functional as possible, we can continue to work on our own emotional intelligence and our own awareness and understandings about situations. We can be open and honest with our communication. We can own up to our mistakes and continually work to improve. And we can be the person God calls us to be, unapologetically.

Functionally Dysfunctional